The Indiana Fire’s late-season surge got them the final spot in the Midwest Region playoffs, where they avenged one of their two regular-season losses in Friday’s semifinals. Now they’ll have a chance to avenge the other one in Saturday’s regional final.
Nago Mbengue scored his team-best seventh goal of the season in the 48th minute and Cody Schweitzer made seven saves in the clean sheet as the fourth-seeded Fire blanked the top-seeded Madison 56ers 1-0 at Breese Stevens Field in Madison, Wis.
The Fire (8-2-3), who lost to the 56ers 2-1 on June 27, advanced to play third-seeded AFC Cleveland (9-2-2) in the Midwest final at 3 p.m. Central on Saturday. Indiana’s only other loss was a 2-0 setback against the Royals eight days earlier on June 19.
“We beat Madison today and now AFC Cleveland … it would be nice to come out and get wins against the teams we lost to in the regular season,” said Schweitzer, who is heading into his sophomore year at Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne.
Four-time regional champion Madison (9-3-1), playing its first home NPSL playoff match since 2006, outshot the Fire 17-6 — and limited Indiana to just two shots on goal — but still saw their six-game winning streak come to an end. The 56ers were without forward Drew Whalen, the Midwest Golden Boot winner with 11 goals this summer, and veteran starting midfielder Keenan Newallo because of knee injuries.
“They’re two guys who are pretty key,” 56ers coach Jim Launder said. “You talk about your leading scorer (in Whalen), and by a lot. And he’s so good at holding the ball up, so it’s a lot of other stuff, not just scoring goals.”
Mbengue, a first-team All-Midwest Region selection by the coaches, was involved in most of Indiana’s best opportunities and converted the only goal needed on this night shortly after halftime. Getting a ball from left back Tanner Witsken, the Senegalese striker beat a defender, broke in on the left side and coolly slotted a shot past Madison goalkeeper Joe White to the far post.
That proved to be enough as Schweitzer posted the Fire’s fifth shutout of the season. His best saves came in an 11-minute span in the second half, as he stood tall at his near post to stop a point-blank drive by 56ers midfielder Callum Glen in the 57th, then leapt to tip a 20-yard drive by Madison left back Miguel Izquierdo over the crossbar in the 68th.
“He made some good saves,” Launder said of Schweitzer, “and we probably could have finished better on some of them.”
The 56ers had two great chances to open the scoring in the first half. In the 28th, Gideon Asante played a ball into space that Tony Amolo ran onto, but Schweitzer charged off his line and managed to disrupt the shot. Twelve minutes later, Asante lofted a picture-perfect cross from the left side over an Indiana defender for Carlos Martinez, but the Venezuelan midfielder sent his wide-open header wide.
The Fire nearly added an insurance goal in the final 20 minutes, as Mbengue got in on the left flank again in the 77th — nearly a carbon copy of his goal — but pushed his shot wide right this time. That was just two minutes after teammate Jacob Murphy saw his calls for a penalty ignored after being taken down by Izquierdo in the box.